Short-Term Social-Justice Trips are Booming

Fueled by young Jews’ interest, short-term social-justice trips are booming, and becoming more professional.

excerpted from Tamar Snyder in The Jewish Week:

For years, the short-term service trip has been treated like the kid sister of the more established and professionalized yearlong Jewish service program. These short-term programs, which range from a week to 10 days, were often seen as more trouble than they were worth. A group of college students who had never touched a drill in their lives, but were inspired to do social justice work and live out the Jewish value of repairing the world, suddenly swooped into a downtrodden village in a Third World country and built a house – one that needed to be rebuilt by professionals after the well-meaning group had boarded their flight home.

Such snafus devastated morale among participants, who wanted an authentic way to serve. And few bothered to think about the impact these programs had on host communities.

In recent years, however, the short-term immersive Jewish service-learning program has come of age. These programs have become professionalized, requiring months of planning on the parts of both the agency and a representative from the host community. Participants are required to log several hours of training in advance of the trip, in which they learn about the norms of the community in which they will be working, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the needs that they will fill. The Jewish learning that accompanies these trips is more than a simple text study; participants receive a hefty handbook filled with traditional Jewish texts alongside articles by Jewish thinkers, secular thought leaders, and other learning tools (and, in some case, even Legos!).

As short-term service learning has evolved, the number of short-term trips sponsored by Jewish organizations has increased exponentially. In 2009-2010, more than 2,000 college students and young professionals participated in alternative break programs supported by Repair the World, a collaborative that aims to build the field of Jewish service learning. This year, that number is projected to increase to as many as 2,300 participants; approximately 80 percent of those signing up for service-learning programs will choose a trip that lasts between a week and 10 days. (These numbers do not include student-led trips or Jewish students participating in service-learning programs organized by non-Jewish organizations).

… For more than two decades, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been running its Jewish Service Corps, a yearlong fellowship in which young Jews are placed in Turkey, Russia, Israel, Rwanda and elsewhere overseas. It wasn’t until 2004 that JDC piloted its first short-term service program. Since 2008, the budget for its short-term service programs has increased by 400 percent.

In 2011, the JDC plans to organize 13 short-term service programs for college students, in partnership with Hillels across the country and Yeshiva University. Last year, JDC began offering short-term service and study trips for young professionals and graduate students. As many as 13 trips are planned for this cohort in 2011, and additional growth is anticipated.

The growth in short-term service learning programs is not limited to JDC. This year, the American Jewish World Service will be sending 250 participants (23 groups) on alternative breaks. This represents a 41 percent increase from 2010, when AJWS sent 16 groups on short-term service-learning programs.

And at Yeshiva University, the number of winter break service-learning trips the university organizes has more than doubled since two years ago. This winter, YU is running six trips serving 140 students. One group of YU students raised $40,000 to help resettle Gush Katif evacuees in the Negev and revamp a playground. Another group traveled to Cancun to work with Hombre Sobre La Tierra, a humanitarian group that provides Mayan peasants with the means to produce their own food. And a third cohort traveled to Nicaragua, where it is laying the foundation for a library.

We encourage you to read Tamar Snyder’s complete article, Living Out Their Jewish Values – Quickly, and New Study: The Worth of What They Do – (a recently released study that examines the effects of alternative breaks and other short-term volunteer projects).